Review: Encounter Theory by Ben Riggs

Write or publish better adventures! Ben Riggs has read and reviewed hundreds of adventures for Geek & Sundry and the Plot Points podcast. In Encounter Theory he channels that accumulated wisdom into tools you can use to make your adventures better. He has invented a theory of adventure design to cut away unhelpful ideas and created 14 playplans, tools which will apply the theory to help you write better adventures for home or publication.

I became aware of Ben Riggs’ e-book about adventure design after listening to this episode of his podcast, Plot Points. If you don’t buy the book, you can listen to the podcast and get an idea of what the material in the book and what it is about. I was a patron on the Plot Points podcast for a while and saw a pre-publication version. I also purchased the book on DriveThruRPG. I am not getting paid or receiving any other consideration from Ben for this review.

Who’s it for? Game masters and game designers who want to create great adventures and need some guidance and a foundational set of design principles to build their process on.

What’s it for? Provide a set of principles and tools that game masters and game designers can use to create engaging adventures for home or publication.

Does it work? Yes. On the whole, I think it does. There is a lot here to like and if you are like me (obsessed with making the best adventures you can) then you should consider reading this despite its flaws. I have my gripes with this book which are centered around the graphic design and pricing.

If you are new at creating adventures and/or struggling with organization, this might be worth picking up. That said, if you are on a budget or not a compulsive buyer of books on role playing game design (like I am) then there are some great, (free) blog posts that offer similar processes that are as effective in adventure design. I have linked to them below.

The Review

Encounter Theory starts out with several premises that I agree with.

Game companies have published very few well designed adventures. Ben observes that RPG’s are a relatively new form of entertainment that have story-like structures but are not stories themselves. RPG designers have struggled with coming up with a way to produce consistently good adventures. Designers have often leaned on the tools of older story telling methods in combination with trial and error. Another problem is that adventures don’t sell as well as game systems and so haven’t been given an appropriate amount of playtesting, editing and rewriting. This part of the book is included in the DTRPG preview.

The next section is laying out Ben’s theory of adventure design. He provides four principles that think are quite solid and follow along with some of the better game master advice that I have linked in my “Recommendations” page. He recommends that the designer only write material that the players will interact with in the course of the adventure, give the PC’s problems to solve and let the players figure out how to deal with them; use the dungeon as your model for adventure structure and give specific descriptions using the five senses. For each of these points he gives a full but concise explanation. There are no wasted words here. He stays to the point and is very clear. Extra marks in a hobby where being overly verbose is the norm and not the exception.

Part 2 of Encounter Theory is “The Workbook.” The workbook is a set of tools you can use to apply Ben’s theory. He has written up a number of worksheets he calls “play plans”. Each play plan has a form you can fill out with only the necessary information you need for each NPC and encounter in an adventure. He provides a list of structures and which play plans you can use to develop your adventure. They are listed in order and with page numbers. Included in the download from DriveThru RPG is a .doc file that has all the play plans so that you can print them individually, fill them out on a word processor or alter them as you see fit. Each structure begins with the “Adventure Brainstormer” and then combines different play plans depending on what you are trying to do. There are different play plans for designers intending to publish and game masters just producing an adventure for their home group or a convention.

Each field of the play plan is explained, again in wonderfully clear and concise language. Where there are sections in common between play plans the text is repeated. Once I had gotten through the first five or so play plans, I could skip re-reading the descriptions that were repeated. The play plans are worksheets that help you organize your ideas into a form that is easy to work with and reference in play. Included are play plans for investigative games like Call of Cthulu, as well as games driven by social conflict and intrigue like Vampire: The Masquerade. You can combine different play plans to come up with a variety of adventure types in different genre’s of game.

The final section of the e-book is Ben showing how the process is used. He presents an adventure for 5E D&D and explains which play plan he used, the process for each play plan and how the whole thing was tied together into a complete adventure.

My Thoughts

The concept and the tools in this book are excellent. I am in full agreement with the idea that “the encounter” is the fundamental building block of any table top role-playing game adventure or campaign. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne presents a similar concept as applied to writing a novel. “The scene” is the basic unit of story telling. A well written scene is a miniature story. A character is taking action to overcome an obstacle to their goals and there is an outcome which is interesting to the audience. Each scene contributes to the whole of the story.

In a good adventure, each encounter is like a mini-adventure. The PC’s have an objective, which is contested by an NPC, a monster or some part of the setting. The players make choices to overcome the obstacle or not and there is an outcome that is hopefully interesting to everyone playing.

The Good

Even if you just keep the thesis and the four principles he outlines in the book in mind, you are going to make much better adventures than most of what has been published. The writing throughout is clear and to the point. There’s no padding in the word count. It is efficient and effective communication.

The play plans are well explained and easy to understand. They are effective tools for creating and structuring adventures.

The Less Good

Ben’s claim to have invented a theory of adventure design is a little weak in my opinion. Anyone who has been following the Old School Renaissance blogs for very long will find the same points of view have been expressed for a decade or more before Ben published his e-book. He has packaged them in his own personal way and presented them in a unique fashion but “invented a theory of adventure design” is a big stretch.

For comparison, I recommend reading the Gamemastery 101 posts at The Alexandrian with extra emphasis on the Node Based Design essays in particular. I also recommend the design posts by Courtney Campbell.

The Bad

The typefaces are terrible. It was readable with my desk top monitor but I still felt a lot of eye strain. I prefer to read e-books on the Kindle and PDF’s often do not render very well on Kindle, this was worse than usual. It was very hard to read on the Kindle. I don’t know how it would look on an iPad or Android tablet. When publishing a PDF, it is generally recommended that you stick with a single sans serif typeface. It is much easier to read. With this PDF there are serif typefaces, several different typefaces on the same page, decorative typefaces that are probably intended to add some interest to the book but just make it harder to read.

There are illustrations but they appear to be low budget clip art that make the whole thing feel cheap and amateurish. The layout is not very good either. Ben mentions several times that if you are publishing an adventure today, that it is probably going to be in electronic format and yet, he chose typefaces that are harder to read on screens and doesn’t take advantage of the benefits offered by PDF formats in this work. It is a little puzzling.

This is kind of expensive for an e-book where much of the content is a set of blank worksheets, clip art illustrations and a significant amount of repeated text in the play plan section. It’s currently on sale at $9.99 but normally goes for $12.99. At that price, it ought to be crystal clear, easy to read, easy to navigate and make use of some of the advance functions of a PDF reader. Hyperlinks to the play plans where they are mentioned in the text and in the table of contents would be helpful. I would also like to see a set of form fillable PDF play plans instead of the .doc files.

Final Thought

On the whole, Encounter Theory presents an excellent set of principles that you can use to produce great adventures for publication or home use. The graphic design is severely lacking and a major distraction from the content of the book. If you read the blog posts on The Alexandrian and Hack and Slash blog and are still struggling, then this may be of value.

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